Pro-tips For Extended Winter Outdoor Play

A grandmother and her grandson kneel on top of a snow hill. They are looking down into a hole they are digging in the hill with shovels. The are wearing winter clothing and there is a forest in the back ground.

We’ve all heard there’s “no such thing as inappropriate weather only inappropriate clothing” and we know that during a pandemic the best spot for children to be is outside. However, this knowledge doesn’t help get a group of ten 3 year old children into their snow pants and out the door without a meltdown- does it?

Therefore we’ve assembled some tips from the pros for you to use as resources so that you can spend your winter building epic snow forts rather than in an epic stand off over wearing mittens..

Step 1:

Go outside everyday! It sounds like an over-simplification, but routine is key.

There are days where the weather is so inclement that it will impede quality play- but I encourage you to dress up, go outside, and test it out- instead of relying on notoriously unreliable weather apps to decide your day. Also, it’s a fact that weather always looks more daunting from the inside. As soon as you open the door to staying in you set a precedent for leaving your proper clothing at home or watching more videos. Absolutely come inside if the weather is hazardous (lightening, high winds knocking branches off etc.) but most inclement weather can be mitigated (do a risk/benefit assessment if you are worried) and 10 minutes outside is better than 0 minutes.

This post is coming at you from Winnipeg (aka Winterpeg) Canada where we have -30 Celsius temps in the winter and +30 Celsius temps in the summer and still we manage to take young children outdoors for hours at a time safely, and happily and with proper clothing- you can too! In fact there are Forest School programs in Yellowknife, Alaska and plenty of other cold places.

Step 2:

Girl stands on snow, wearing winter clothing, and a hat. She's holding a shovel in her right hand and facing towards the left of the frame. There is snow and a large spruce tree in the back ground.

Create a culture of outdoor play in any weather! Whether it’s for your family or your classroom, make sure you are setting an expectation from the get-go that you play outside in all weathers. Change how you talk about the weather so that you are always using positive language. Include outdoor play in all weathers in your job descriptions and policy manuals. Post photos of happy people playing in the rain, mud and snow. Read books about playing out in all weathers. Turn interesting weather into a challenge and an adventure rather than an impediment.

I was once on a walking trip to the library with a group of 5 year old children, when a surprise black cloud blew up as we were halfway between the library and home. Without much warning, small hail (we call it sleet) started coming down from the cloud and we rushed to huddle together under a tree. It wasn’t hazardous, but the small pieces of ice hitting our faces did sting! It lasted only a few minutes, but it became the kindergarten classes favourite part of the whole trip- in spite of the lovely story time and magic show at the library. The children talked about this event for weeks.

Now some of you are saying: “Why are they encouraging people to do dangerous things like playing outside in extreme weather?!?” Just as one person’s garbage is another’s treasure- one person’s inclement weather is another’s lovely day. Here in Canada, we all know someone who wears flip-flops and shorts when the weather is -5 Celcius (brrrr). However, people have been living safely in places with extreme temperatures for all of human history and before there was goretex, merino wool and A/C units. So probably, children can manage to go outside for 30 minutes of active play even if there is a windchill.

Step 3:

It’s all about your layers. Dressing appropriately is not about expensive, designer gear- but rather about having a good base layer (spoiler alert- not cotton) and a variety of easy to remove upper layers. This is because, dressing too warmly, can cause you to sweat and sweat is the enemy of staying warm. Sometimes as adults we worry about our children and try to compensate by dressing them super warm, forgetting that they are likely to be 3 times as active as we are. Too warm clothing can be bulky and impede play in addition to causing sweat. If you’d like to know more about appropriate layers I recommend this blog by Momenta, this video guide on how to dress for Forest School, and this guest blog by Jasmine Nault who plays outside with children in Thompson, Manitoba.

Step 4:

Foster Independence. Allow children to remove or wear outdoor clothing when it is safe to do so. Teach them how do their own risk assessment (according to their developmental level). Teach them the signs of frost bite and hypothermia and ways to mitigate it. Use science not fear in your explanation. This will eliminate the stressful standoff when it’s time to dress for the outdoors. A reasonable and natural consequence for not dressing appropriately is that you have to interrupt your play and go inside. Or sometimes, when it’s safe, it’s that you have to wear wet pants until everyone else is ready to go indoors. Always treat children as though they are capable and competent and they will be happy to play outside.

Find ways for your children to become self-sufficient in their dressing:

  • Allow enough time. If you in a rush, you will feel stressed and so will the children.
  • Think of dressing as it’s own valuable activity rather than something that is eating into time for a better activity
  • Make it fun: sing a song, play a game, be silly, enjoy the journey.
  • Use a visual poster so children know what to put on next.
  • Try the jacket flip trick.
  • Set all the boots and snow pants up like a fire fighter does with the boots already tucked into the pants. So children can just step in and pull up.
  • Ensure all winter clothes can be stored together and are easily accessible for the children.
  • Do the winter clothes classroom challenge.
  • Dress a stuffed animal or a doll in outdoor winter clothing so children can practice zippers and snaps and order of dressing.
  • Encourage teamwork! It’s so much easier to do up someone else’s zipper than your own. Children can help each other with their mittens and boots.
  • Gloves are never as warm as mittens. If your child absolutely insists on gloves have a back up set of mittens or you’ll never be able to stay out for more than 20 minutes

Step 5:

Make winter fun! Most traditional playground equipment loses it’s functionality during the winter. Luckily snow is the original loose part and with a little effort your children will be eager to play out in the winter.

Ideas:

  • Sleds- if you don’t have a hill tie a short rope to the sled so children can pull each other. Sled rides are great for infants and toddlers who have difficulties moving around in the snow.
  • Shovels and buckets for digging and building
  • Make a “snow kitchen“- just like a mud kitchen but with snow
  • Ask your friendly-neighbourhood tractor owner to make a snow hill for you
  • Snow Saws! These snow toys are genius!
  • Snow science experiments- snow volcano, rainbow icicles, frozen bubbles and much more!
  • Make outdoor ice decorations, bird feeders, edible tree decorations and a Swedish snow lantern.
  • Forts and Quinzees– if you don’t have enough snow use tarps and old blankets to create winter shelter! You could also gather branches.
  • Winter citizen science projects
  • Winter sports: hockey, curling, skiing, snowshoeing, skating etc.
  • Winter time is a great time to look for animal tracks. Even the most urban neighbourhoods have birds, mice, rabbits, squirrels, deer and raccoons who are making tracks in the snow.

Step 6:

When you come inside…

  • Have an easily accessible spot to store your gear so you can find it next time!
  • Invest in a mitten/boot drying rack
  • Throw wet snow pants in the dryer (make sure they aren’t dirty first and check the pockets for crayons… trust me…learned the hard way…) so you’ll be ready to head back outside asap
  • Put some soup, cider or hot chocolate in the slow cooker before you head out so it’ll be warm and ready when you come inside.
  • I recommend a good cuddle under a blanket with a book while you warm up

**Shout out to the Manitoba ECE’s and CCA’s Facebook page where I got many of these ideas!

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